Rewriting the Rules of Love

Teaching kids about kindness, compassion, and consent.

Posted Feb 28, 2020

I came across this news story yesterday morning and started seething. It's gone viral, so perhaps you've seen it. If you haven't, it's about the experience of Azlyn Hobson, an 11-year-old girl in Utah, at her middle school Valentine's Day dance.

She attempted to decline a boy's invitation to dance with her, a boy who, it seems, "made her feel uncomfortable." But she wasn't allowed to do that; the principal came over and reminded her that saying no is against school rules. 

As if the world had been eavesdropping on my innermost thoughts, I received a message a few hours later from a reporter at Today Parents asking if I'd be interested in offering "expert commentary." I was very interested. It was only a couple of hours later, and I was still seething. The quote I provided was as follows: 

"Policies like this one not only overlook but completely fly in the face of what we need to be teaching young children—of all gender identities—about the importance of consent. Essentially, it is saying that a child needs to say yes—no matter how they feel—as a blanket rule, specifically so as to protect the other child's feelings and ego, that the 'asker's' feelings are both more fragile and more important than the 'askee's.' I don't think it's a stretch to say that such a message is very much in alignment with rape culture and, therefore, very dangerous if perpetuated."  

I stand by this quote 100 percent, and comments on social media suggest I'm far from alone. But it's only the tip of the iceberg of all there is to say on the issue. How did we get here? How did the pendulum of teaching children to be kind, inclusive, and compassionate swing so far as to land us in a place where children are unable to exercise autonomy, to learn to trust and express their preferences? 

Why do we fragilize some children's feelings ("We don't want anyone to experience rejection") while simultaneously sending the message that others' are invalid ("Dance with the person who makes you uncomfortable")? Certainly, and in the case of Azlyn Hobson, this discrepancy falls along traditional gender lines—the girl was encouraged to override her discomfort so as to shield the boy from the presumably devastating impact of her "no." But this hypocrisy affects children of all gender identities. 

chasingmoments/Adobe Stock
Source: chasingmoments/Adobe Stock

As Azlyn was preparing for her Valentine's Day dance, children (and their parents) across the country were engaged in February's usual pastime: making valentines. The rule in my son's kindergarten class was simple, predictable, and common: If you are going to make valentines, you need to make them for the whole class. 

And I get the sentiment behind this; I do. I loved the heartwarming story in the Washington Post about the teacher who taught her class that you can always think of at least one kind thing to say about someone and that Valentine's Day can, and should, be a celebration of loving all and excluding none.

But then there I was, sitting on our living room floor, helping my son spell his classmates' names, and it all suddenly got a bit more complicated.

"Mommy?"

"Yeah, Sweetie?"

"I don't want to make one for Austin*. He's not nice to me."

Parenting choice point. Do I encourage my son to think of Austin's good points so that he changes his mind? Do I tell him he has to make Austin a valentine anyway because that's the rule? Do I teach him that it's important to question certain rules rather than follow them blindly? Do I distinguish between the letter of the law versus the spirit behind it, revealing the frustrating, and at times quite damaging, truth that they don't always align? Do I support and empower my son and tell him he doesn't have to make the valentine if he doesn't want to?

As with most parenting choice points, there are many more questions than answers. These issues are complicated and nuanced—just like our children are, just like we are, just like all interpersonal dynamics are. There is, however, one point about which I feel very clear, as a psychologist, a mother, and an "expert commentator:" If we continue to enact policies of kindness and inclusivity that don't take into account these nuances, we're going to do our children a disservice. Yes, a different disservice than the ones of past generations, when teasing, exclusion, and even bullying were—sadly and wrongly—far more acceptable, but a disservice nonetheless.

We need to be teaching our children that being kind and being discerning are not mutually exclusive, that we can honor our own feeling states (physical, physiological, emotional) without being disrespectful or dismissive of others', that we can—and have the right to—exercise autonomy over our own bodies and lives while simultaneously practicing compassion toward others. Is this harder than a one-size-fits-all policy? Sure. Parenting, and educating, children usually are.  

After thinking it through and talking it out, my son decided that he would, in fact, make a valentine for Austin—both because it was the class policy and because it was the kind thing to do. He also, however, decided to use the word "from" instead of "love" when signing his name, not to decorate it with his favorite colors, and to use only one sparkly sticker as opposed to the usual two or three.

We talked about how these decisions felt in his body, in his heart, and in his mind. He said "good," and because he's an almost-6-year-old boy, I didn't push it.

Azlyn could have, and should have, had the opportunity to be both kind and discerning, to decline the invitation from the boy who made her uncomfortable in a respectful way. And frankly, the boy could have, and should have, had the opportunity to experience her "no" and notice that he could handle it, that he is resilient and strong, and no less of a person because he wasn't one person's desired dance partner.

Discernment and kindness, resilience and respect—aren't these the qualities we want our children to learn? If so, then it's on us to be a lot more thoughtful about how we teach them.

*Name has been changed.